Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Perfection, or: Cello, Is It Me You’re Looking for?

I’m quite sad that LGBTQ month on the Collab is drawing to a close…until I remember that we are mere days away from October, a true time of festivity for our horror-loving hearts. It doesn’t hurt that this week strikes a happy medium between these two themes with a rather twisted lesbian romance at the center of an unexpectedly vomit-filled, bug-infested horror.

The Film:

The Perfection

The Premise:

When the former student of a prestigious music school reunites with the academy’s most famous pupil, so many ulterior motives are revealed.

The Ramble:

A former student of Bachoff, the World’s Most Prestigious Music School, Charlotte is in Shanghai to help judge a competition for the next open spot at the academy. Having suffered a fall from favor after leaving the school to care for her dying mother, Charlotte isn’t prepared to meet star pupil turned darling of the cello world Lizzie.

While Charlotte fangirls over the world-renowned cellist, Lizzie herself reveals that she briefly met and idolized Charlotte when they were children. After judging the competition, Lizzie makes her intentions known by inviting Charlotte to perform a cello duet. Before spending the night together, the two witness one of the evening’s attendees suddenly become violently ill before collapsing onto the ground. Though concerned it may be a serious plague, Charlotte and Lizzie are mostly unconcerned.

As the two women bond, Lizzie invites Charlotte to join her as she travels across the Chinese countryside for the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the journey is off to an inauspicious start as Lizzie is extremely hungover. Determined to power through it, an increasingly agitated Lizzie boards a bus with Charlotte only to insist the bus stop shortly after. Lizzie becomes extremely ill, and the disconcerted bus passengers insists she disembark after she claims to see bugs in her vomit.

Left in the middle of nowhere to fend for themselves, Lizzie only becomes more distressed as she sees bugs crawling under her skin and becomes convinced she’s dying. Because these bugs all seem to be beneath the flesh of her right arm, Charlotte presents Lizzie with the only logical option: immediately severing her arm with a meat cleaver. Say what now?

Weeks later, Lizzie returns to Bachoff missing an arm, and therefore is of no further use to head of the academy Anton. Unceremoniously removed from the institution, an enraged Lizzie blames Charlotte for the accident and is determined to make her pay. But who is really…pulling the strings in all of this (sorry not sorry)?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

More interested in setting up dramatic plot twists than telling a coherent story, this film is nevertheless quite fun to watch. The casting of Allison Williams means you know underhanded schemes will happen, and Logan Browning is great here too (as always).

Because this becomes a revenge film, it loses a lot of its effectiveness by going for shock value instead of clearly establishing the villain early on. I also wish the relationship between Charlotte and Lizzie had been better defined as the film’s conclusion left me wondering how well they knew each other as children, and not entirely convinced by their motives.

Would absolutely watch a horrendous sequel, though, if given the chance.

Would my blog wife perform a duet with this one or cut all of its strings? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, or: Warrior Queens

It would be a shame to let this month, focused on LGBTQIA+ films, pass by without a musical number and a drag queen or two, wouldn’t it? This week’s film checks off these boxes and more, serving up the fiercest looks on impossibly tall stilettos.

The Film:

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

The Premise:

Deciding to become a drag queen at age 16, Jamie prepares to debut his identity at prom while dodging discouragement from family, classmates, and school administrators.

The Ramble:

Leading a fairly quiet life in Sheffield, openly gay teen Jamie aspires to a glamorous life in the spotlight. In response to his unsupportive classmates and dreamcrushing teacher Miss Hedge, Jamie claims his plan is to be a performer, but this is only part of the story. Jamie really dreams of becoming a drag queen but is too nervous to admit this even to his bff Pritti.

Jamie, a teen with short bleach-blonde hair, sits across from his friend Pritti, a teen wearing glasses and a hijab.  She is looking at a pair of very high-heeled glittery red stilettos.

Luckily, Jamie’s mother Margaret and her own bestie Jay are extremely supportive. Knowing her son’s love of glittery fashion accessories, Margaret gifts Jamie with his first pair of stiletto heels for his 16th birthday. While it seems there are no secrets between mother and son, it’s clear pretty early on that Margaret is massively covering for Jamie’s absentee father, who has zero interest in being a part of his child’s life.

Disappointed in his father’s absenteeism yet again, Jamie is nonetheless thrilled with the heels in which he will take his first steps to success as a drag queen. Sharing the good shoe news with Pritti, Jamie finds his bff somewhat confused yet unshakably supportive. She encourages Jamie to show off his developing drag queen identity at prom, despite putdowns from cookie cutter homophobic bully Dean.

Jamie sits at a work table in the family kitchen, holding his mother's hand. Both look at each other as they sing.

By chance, it’s around this time that Jamie finds a local drag shop owned by Hugo Battersby, former drag queen Loco Chanelle. Along with some practical advice on preparing for and performing drag, Hugo gives Jamie a history lesson that contextualizes its significance for those involved, identifying earlier trailblazers as true warrior queens. Color me disappointed that none of the drag acts featured Boudica or even Xena, Warrior Princess.

Getting to work right away, Jamie starts saving money for fabulous drag gear, learning to apply makeup, and hoping in vain that his father will suddenly decide to support his son just a little bit. Ahead of prom, Jamie debuts his drag identity Mimi Me, despite attempts from Dean to derail the evening.

Jamie, wearing a robe, looks into a mirror as a drag queen applies makeup to his face. Three other drag queens prepare for their act as they sing to Jamie.

As Jamie begins to find confidence while in drag, he must contend with the fact that he feels ugly and insecure as himself. Complicating matters are the school administrators’ words of discouragement on learning that Jamie intends to wear a dress to prom. To top it all off, Jamie realizes with dismay that his mother has been lying about his father maintaining even a modest level of interest in his son’s life.

At a definite low point, Jamie turns to a night of binge drinking and antagonizing footballers. Now that he’s fallen from those very stylish heels, will Jamie be able to pick himself back up again?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

This is such a fun, upbeat film that it’s impossible not to find some charm in it. (So much better than the misguided The Prom, thank god). I enjoy the choreographed dance numbers so much, and it’s welcome to see a film with a heartfelt message, especially in the context of…everything. In terms of casting, our lead Max Harwood and (obviously) Richard E. Grant are so perfect here, and the brief Bianca del Rio cameo is superb. Richard E. Grant’s character and songs are firmly my favorites.

I cannot overstate how pleased I am that this film’s heart depends on family and friendship. And, most of all, that no one has a problematic romance with the class bully who was only terrible because he hated his own secret gay identity. I cannot tell you how tired I am with this trope, and we dodged it entirely, praise the lord.

What holds me back from a full 4 stars is how persistently light and upbeat this is, even when dealing with troubling themes. The story doesn’t fully explore these themes and suffers for it, at least in my opinion. I welcome affirming stories like this one, but I think pushing things into slightly more serious dramatic territory could have only made the emotional resonance more powerful. I loved the bejeezus out of the Richard E. Grant number “This Was Me” that celebrates drag and the LGTBQ community in the 1980s and would have wholeheartedly embraced more songs of this nature (speaking of which–the song was added for the film, and I could not imagine a stage production without this number).

Another issue is that, while the story is about Jamie’s identity, Jamie is a bit self-involved. The single-minded focus on his character means we don’t get to explore the nuances of more interesting supporting characters (okay–I’m primarily talking about Loco Chanelle). Every single non-Jamie character is either there to support or discourage him in cartoonishly awful ways, and he doesn’t always do much for them in return. Jamie is a bad friend to Pritti at times, though full credit for always having her back when faced with Dean. Honestly even Jamie’s character development isn’t that great, as there’s a lot of external focus on his appearance and not as much exploration as I would have liked about his internal motivations to do drag.

As a result of little secondary character exploration, I didn’t believe the change of heart so many characters have at the end. The school’s acceptance of Jamie is sweet but feels hollow and somewhat confusing too. Fully recognizing it’s possible to want contradictory things, I found it odd that Jamie seems to want to stand out but also for everyone to love him. Sure, I understand the impulse, but a bit more self-awareness from the character may have helped him recognize the impossibility of both of these things being true.

That being said, I would watch this 6 more times just for the brief scenes featuring Richard E. Grant in drag.

Would my blog wife help this one pencil in elegantly arched brows or snatch the tiara from atop its perfectly styled wig? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Bound, or: Blood Money

It’s no secret that we L O V E film noir on the Blog Collab, particularly when our story involves a femme fatale who can expertly fire a pistol between drags on a cigarette perched in a dainty silver holder. This week, we have more than enough 1940s noir ambience to go around, along with a butch ex-con, illicit schemes and affairs, and elegantly crafted scenes of violence. Oh, and it’s the first film by the Wachowskis. Have we died and gone to heaven or, you know, been resurrected Matrix-style?

The Film:

Bound (1996)

The Premise:

A woman seeking freedom from the mafia begins an affair with another woman whose former life of crime may help them escape the mob with a case of stolen money.

The Ramble:

Out of prison and keeping a low profile, the excellently named Corky finds work renovating a recently vacant apartment and completing general building maintenance in Chicago. Quietly minding her own business doesn’t seem like a feasible option for long when Corky catches the eye of neighbor Violet, who lives with Caesar, a man who is quick to anger and heavily linked to the mafia. A winning combination indeed.

Corky, a woman with shaggy dark hair wearing a dirty A-shirt style tank top, leans against a kitchen sink. She is gazing intently into Violet's eyes, a woman wearing a low-cut black dress with a curly 1940s-style bob and makeup.

After Violet pulls the classic earring-down-the-sink maneuver, she and Corky begin a sexual relationship, sharing an unspoken and intense connection. Based on their understanding and Violet’s long-held desire to leave the mob life behind, she loops Corky in on a plan to fool everyone and escape the mafia with millions of dollars.

As Violet explains, recently tortured and murdered schemer Shelly was skimming money from his own mob crew with serious commitment–to the point that these funds fit nicely into a suitcase worth over $2 million. For a brief window, all of the money will be in Caesar and Violet’s apartment before big boss Gino Marzzone passes go and collects it. In a rather gruesome turn, all of the money has to be cleaned and air-dried first as Gino’s hothead son Johnnie shoots and kills Shelly, covering the cash in blood.

Wearing a black spaghetti strap top and dark red lipstick, Violet sits with one hand propping up her head. She is staring contemplatively at the many $100 bills clipped to fishing line as they air dry.

Like any film noir-style hard-boiled detective worth their salt, Corky is pretty fucking suspicious of Violet’s motives in all of this. However, the allure of both the money and Violet herself soon have Corky returning to her life of crime, outlining a brilliant, foolproof plan that of course could never go wrong in a million years.

Mob associate Caesar embraces Johnnie with a fake smile. Johnnie is wearing a bandage on his nose from an earlier punch Caesar gave him.

What follows is a very tense unraveling of the game plan as Caesar proves to be way more of an unhinged, trigger-happy murderer than expected. I will leave it there–but is it because I’m tired, bad at explaining heists, or terrible about planning my time this week? No doubt the answer to this question generates as much suspense as the film itself.

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Violet’s character is the closest we get to a 1940s femme fatale in a 1990s setting, so she is now our new idol. At least I can only presume. What’s truly excellent about both of our leading ladies is their approaches to navigating a violent, male-dominated world; they each have different strategies, and they work together in perfect harmony. There’s no pitting these identities against each other or implying there’s a more appropriate way to be a woman and express one’s identity. Both Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are wonderfully cast.

From virtually the first minute of the film, suspense is driving the narrative forward, whether because of the tension between Violet and Corky or the increasingly troublesome case full of cash. As such, the pacing never slows down, and my interest as a viewer never waned. Some of the scenes are horrifically violent yet beautifully and even lovingly filmed. I’m such a fan of the last few scenes of the film and some of the brilliant one-liners these characters have…but also every scene, to be honest.

A couple of criticism do come to mind. First, though the film pivots on a lesbian relationship, the film is quite overwhelmed by white, male, and heterosexual characters. This film could pass the Bechdel test more comfortably as well as include more diversity, especially as it takes place in Chicago. Another drawback that comes to mind is that the relationship between Violet and Corky is a bit too easily established, and the trust between them not wholly earned. However, they’re so vividly drawn characters that it’s impossible to be mad about that. The romance between our two leads is hot (and definitely R rated) without being creepy or voyeuristic.

Would my blog wife devise a convoluted plan with this one or smoke a cigarette around it with no small measure of disdain? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Saving Face, or: Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Given the global pandemic still very much happening and its impact on my current mental/emotional state, I could probably keep watching horror for the next 500 years and still not satisfy that unique sense of dread and calm the genre inspires in me. I’m worried the world is an awful place but feel a certain tranquility when it shows its true colors.

Anyway.

It’s probably for the best to do a bit of a reset in September ahead of the most wonderful time of the year (Halloween). This week, we have a lesbian romance with hints of soap opera drama and a hearty dose of navigating cultural identity. Plus vending machine snacks.

The Film:

Saving Face

The Premise:

As a young Chinese-American surgeon pursues a romance with another woman, she learns her mother has been keeping a shocking secret of her own.

The Ramble:

Wil is a promising young surgeon who gives her mother Gao a lot of cred in their Chinese-American community in Queens. On the marriage front, Gao insists that Wil is much too busy and successful to date. Hmmmmm…dramatic secrets related to identity would suggest otherwise.

Wil, a young woman dressed casually in sweatpants, bends down to talk to her mother, Gao. Gao is sitting on a bed, eyes closed in meditation.

As Gao plays matchmaker at the community’s weekly gathering, she is unknowingly the source of her own gossip, as the widow of over 20 years is stunningly gorgeous and very single. A man by the name of Cho is quite clearly gearing up to make a move, though it’s taken years for him to work up the nerve.

One fateful night, Wil meets the one person her mother is decidedly not trying to set up her daughter with: a ballet dancer named Vivian. In a demonstration of how close-knit the community is, Vivian happens to be the daughter of Wil’s boss. But she’s quite attractive and her love language seems to be vending machine snacks, so poor Wil doesn’t stand a chance.

Wil, dressed in a loose-fitting button-down shirt, stands close in front of Vivian, who touches the sleeve of Wil's shirt.

Meanwhile, Wil realizes through shocking gossip that Gao is keeping even more secrets than her daughter. As it turns out, Gao is pregnant and refuses to divulge the father’s identity. Ooooooh, things are getting more scandalous than the Chinese soaps Gao watches religiously. Wil’s grandfather is especially disappointed, evicting his daughter from their shared apartment and telling her not to bother coming back without a husband. The tables are turned on Gao as Wil attempts to find her the perfect (and perhaps somewhat gullible) husband.

Wil reclines on a futon, arms behind her head. Her mother Gao sits next to her, knitting. Both are staring ahead at an offscreen television.

Now with the complication of having her mother as a roommate, Wil has to work double time to keep her own secret love hidden. A relatably awkward tomboy, Wil is quite sweet when bonding with Vivian. However, conducting their relationship as if it’s an illicit affair isn’t what Vivian has in mind. She begins actively considering an offer to dance ballet in Paris…even though her heart is with modern dance and with a certain socially graceless doctor.

After a number of horrible dates, Gao ultimately accepts a proposal from Cho. While Wil is initially relieved, she’s troubled that her mother still seems rather closed off and unhappy. What’s more, Wil’s grandmother experiences a health crisis, sending the family into a spiral just before the wedding. Taking a cue from Gao’s soaps, the discovery of a shocking letter on her wedding day could spell disaster…or might it lead two generations of Chinese-American women to carve out space for themselves within their own community?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really enjoyed this. Our story feels real, slightly melodramatic twists and all. I think this is largely because the characters and their relationships ground the story. There’s an attention to detail and nuance that makes the love, especially between mother and daughter, convincing. It involves just enough tension for us to believe this is true with all of the messiness and conflict that comes along with family.

The tone is perfect; overall, this is a very sweet film. However, there is enough of a cultural and familial clash that I was somewhat concerned about how it would all turn out. I was relieved when (spoiler?) our leading ladies found a way to fully embrace their own unique identities and place them within Chinese-American culture, not as disparate pieces. I loved that even Wil was shocked by Gao’s secrets and made some of the same assumptions the Chinese community made since it is a part of her identity.

This is the kind of film where I respect the director, Alice Wu, even more as I learned about her process of making this movie a reality. Look it up! It was really a labor of love. My favorite fact so far is that studios really pushed to make all (including the leads!) or at least some characters white to bring more star power to the film, but Wu insisted on maintaining a Chinese cast.

Related: consider that this film was the first major US release since The Joy Luck Club and until Crazy Rich Asians to star an Asian cast. And while we do now have Shang-Chi to enjoy, we’ve still got a lot of progress to make for representation.

Would my blog wife romance this one with vending machine fare or leave it at the altar for another film? Find out in her review!

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Film Reviews

Flying Monkeys, or: We Are Very Much in Kansas

We’re back to high school again for another…er, classic of horror. Fun fact: this is the second film in a row on the Collab where the pizza delivery guy is murdered. Someone please give pizza delivery drivers a raise at least.

The Film:

Flying Monkeys

The Premise:

After a man unknowingly buys a smuggled monkey as a pet for his daughter, it unleashes a reign of terror in small town Kansas. Because it’s a demon. Obviously.

The Ramble:

Ah, smuggling exotic animals: one of the last truly recession-proof jobs. Unfortunately, the hazards of the job include animal bites, zero health benefits, and the occasional chance of being attacked by a monkey that becomes a human-hunting demon at night. You know.

After such a fate befalls two animal smugglers transporting their quarry to the States, their client is less than pleased. Left with only one new animal to sell, he’s determined to make the best of it…until the monkey manages to escape overnight and kill a host of other animals.

A man looks into a cage with a small black and white monkey. The monkey looks fearful as the man holds up his bitten finger angrily.

Meanwhile, in Gale, Kansas, workaholic father James has disappointed his daughter once again, missing her entire high school graduation ceremony. Using demented neglectful dad logic, James decides the clear winning strategy is to buy his daughter Joan a pet monkey. In his defense, Joan has aspirations of becoming a veterinarian, and the monkey is pretty fucking cute.

Naming the little Capuchin monkey Skippy, Joan immediately bonds with her new pet. Skippy turns out to be rather jealous but quite a good judge of character, as he’s not too pleased to meet sketchy boyfriend Jason. As it turns out, Jason is cheating with the sheriff’s daughter…but not for long. At night, Skippy becomes a Xigo, a terrifying winged monkey demon with a taste for human flesh, especially humans who have wronged Joan.

On the roof of a house, a large winged creature bares its fangs in a growl. It resembles a mixture of monkey, human, and gargoyle.

Somewhere in China, two descendants of a family sworn to destroy the Xigo explain all of this backstory and more–and it’s quite generic, honestly. Teaming up with a group of poachers, they are determined to find the only two remaining Xigo and kill them. However, only their ancient mystical weapons can destroy the demons. All other weapons–say, guns for example–will merely cause the Xigo to multiply. Because gun control is such a ubiquitous fucking problem in the States, even shitty B movies feel an obligation to have social commentary about this. And guess who the Xigo ringleader is? Of course it’s Skippy (not his official demon name, tragically).

A man and woman walk through a clearing in a forested area, looking determined and carrying weapons.

After the deaths of Jason and the sheriff’s daughter, Joan is despondent. Adding to her stress is that Skippy doesn’t seem interested in any kind of food whatsoever…as far as she knows. Secretly, Skippy is off murdering livestock and people left and right, and only multiplying as unsuspecting townsfolk aim the inevitable “get off my property” shotgun in his direction.

When the monkey mayhem becomes all too apparent, the local people seem doomed as their default reaction is to shoot each of these creatures on sight. Can the demon hunters save the day before the only residents of Gale are the winged monkey variety?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

Largely because the monkey is so cute. (And their eyes look like my eyes.)

A small black and white monkey stands outside a window, looking in and pressing its hands against the glass.

There’s not much else to recommend this film, sadly. The plot, characters, dialogue, and visual effects are all poorly conceived. At this point, the word “monkey” was thrown around so many times that it doesn’t feel like a real word. What’s more is that the monkey actor is really carrying the film here, and when I think about animals as actors I often feel somewhat conflicted. Like child actors, I wonder if this is the life they would really want, given the choice.

Worse are all the references to China being the source of this demon monkey, which has some unfortunate parallels with Covid-19 (as well as SARS and other diseases). Along with some offhand remarks made to the characters of Asian descent, there are some really problematic and racist ideas at play here. I also don’t love the unnecessary shower scene we get from of one of Joan’s friends, and the jokes made about the demon monkey watching her. There are a lot of problematic approaches here is what I’m saying.

Less infuriating but still there are the extremely lazy references to The Wizard of Oz. These are so badly done that I actually wish we’d had zero references and then just been disappointed by the missed opportunities.

As an aside, I had a lot of questions about monkeys as the film went on, including whether Capuchin monkeys can be kept as pets. Apparently they can in 15 states, Kansas being one of them. Not that this is the kind of film that stands up to rigorous fact-checking anyway, but it does beg the question of why the dude from the beginning of the film had a whole monkey smuggling ring, and seemingly a backroom where all of the questionably legal animals were kept. Maybe we’re in the odd legal territory where it’s legal to own a monkey but not sell one in Kansas. I forget everything from Tiger King that could have had at least some informational value.

I will give a little bit of credit to the actors who had to repeatedly make the serious, dramatically urgent demand “Where’s the monkey?” But most of the time I was fairly bored.

Would my blog wife train this one to jump on her shoulder or promptly strike it down with an ancient mystical weapon? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Slumber Party Massacre, or: Drill, Baby, Drill

Though it’s not officially a horror month on the Collab…it’s the Blog Collab. It’s never not horror month. In a world that seems especially horrific currently, we don’t have answers on the Collab. We only have horror–horror from the ’80s, thank god.

The Film:

The Slumber Party Massacre

The Premise:

After a serial killer escapes from prison, he grabs a power drill as his weapon of choice to terrorize a group of high school girls at a slumber party.

The Ramble:

Though a mass murderer’s recent escape from a prison in Venice Beach, CA is headline news, no one seems too concerned. And though I’m not usually one to call for an increased police presence, this feels like a good opportunity to have a few more patrol officers out and about. But no–it’s relatively easy for the escaped killer to murder a phone repair woman in broad daylight with a power drill.

Oblivious to the danger, senior Trish and her friends are looking forward to a girls only slumber party as her parents will be away for the weekend. Though there are boys around who are all too keen to crash the party, the girls insist they won’t be welcome. Also decidedly not invited is new girl Valerie. As Valerie happens to be gorgeous, naturally athletic, and an agreeable person, Trish immediately dislikes her.

A group of teenagers walk together away from their school building.

Before you know it, one of the girls who is locked inside the school also gets murdered in broad daylight. This is possibly the saddest death as none of her friends seem to notice or even question why she’s not around for the slumber party? I could be misremembering–but, like many an early horror character death, she’s both gone and forgotten.

That evening, Valerie most definitely has more important things to do than sit around and obsess about her snub as the party goes on next door. She insists to her precocious little sister Courtney that she doesn’t care at all about the petty squabble with Trish’s girl gang. Nevertheless, Val is watching quite closely out the window…and she’s got a bad feeling that has nothing to do with the rivalry.

A young woman with feathered blonde hair looks suspiciously around a room.

Something doesn’t seem right to Trish either. Honestly, I’d be concerned too: the kindly neighbor who has agreed to check in on Trish makes himself feel right at home by just showing up in and around the house, incidentally holding a butcher knife. Meanwhile, the boys who are ostensibly among her friends have decided to creep on the evening’s activities by the open window as the girls undress. Quite a few people here really need a refresher on trespassing and consent, and probably the meaning of friendship while we’re at it.

When one of the girls (Diane maybe?) breaks the code of sisterhood and invites her boyfriend to meet her outside the house, there is a horror movie price to be paid quickly and violently. The party goes from bad to worse when the pizza delivery guy shows up dead on the doorstep, making the fatal error of turning the pizza box upside down. Relatably, this doesn’t prevent the girls from stress eating.

Three young women sit back to back on the floor in front of a fireplace. They are each holding a knife.

As the two boys who have joined the party decide to make a break for it to get help, Val considers whether she should finally listen to her gut and investigate the party next door. But will there even be any partygoers left by then?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

My biggest issue here is how surprisingly slow the first half of the film is, despite multiple onscreen power drill murders. It takes quite a while for the power drill killer to catch up with the slumber party crowd, and the effect doesn’t necessarily build suspense. If you’re going to murder people with power tools after escaping from prison, you should probably waste no time. Then again, one lesson we learn from this film is that police interest in investigating serial murders in 1980s Venice Beach is negligible.

When we do finally get into the swing of things, it’s quite satisfying. I can’t think of other horror films that feature a power drill as the murderer’s weapon of choice, and there are some creatively gruesome deaths as a result. Apparently the filmmakers didn’t catch on to the sly humor of screenwriter Rita Mae Brown, so there are some genuinely funny moments even if the tone is a bit off the mark at times.

Annoyingly, our characters are all pretty one-dimensional. Remembering names or any distinguishing characteristics is next to impossible. Even the power drill killer isn’t a particularly interesting person, opting for murdering teen girls…because? That’s just what crazy people do, according to the film’s logic. I was hoping for even a brief backstory that might help us unpack the killer’s motives, but we don’t get any such preparation from the filmmakers.

I wish the Val/Trish stories had been woven together more effectively too. I have to admire Val’s resourcefulness when she unwittingly stumbles across the active site of a serial killer at work. However, she is completely separate from most of the action of the film, and it all gets a bit clunky in terms of pacing. There are some fun elements of ’80s horror at work here, but they don’t necessarily align to become a classic.

On a side note, I love the extremely ’80s horror theme music.

Would my blog wife invite this one to the slumber party or lock it outside with a power drill killer on the loose? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Classic Horror Story, or: Nailed It

*Spoilers follow*

Something about this month feels right for horror. And here’s a degree of separation from last week’s film: ritual sacrifice in a pastoral setting, connected by Nicolas Cage. Last week’s film featured Italian-American Cage fighting animatronics possessed by Satanic serial killers; this week stars Italian actors terrorized by cult members that owe much of their existence to 2006’s modern classic Wicker Man.

Sorry–no bear costumes in this one.

The Film:

A Classic Horror Story

The Premise:

While traveling to southern Italy, a group of strangers is stranded in the woods where a cult engages in ritual human sacrifice.

The Ramble:

Take a ride share through the Italian countryside, they said. It’s a budget-friendly alternative to renting a car that offers more convenience than public transit, they said. And obviously traveling across a remote landscape with a handful of strangers and poor cell phone reception will never take a sinister turn.

A group of four people stands in a dark room, looking with dread at the scene before them.

For our crew of 5 on the road, it’s clear from the beginning that a fairly straightforward journey to southern Italy will not end as anticipated. All have different reasons for traveling, and some are more eager than others to spill the details. Young couple Sofia and Mark are off to attend a friend’s wedding, while reserved Elisa is visiting her parents (who have pressured her into having an abortion). Another elusive passenger, Dr. Riccardo, seems to have little patience for his fellow travelers. And driver Fabrizio is an aspiring filmmaker cheerfully recording the journey.

Impatient with the cautious driving of Fabrizio, cocky Mark decides to take the wheel of the RV. Late at night, he fails to notice a dead goat lying in the middle of the road. Fabrizio takes the wheel, swerving to avoid the animal, though this plants the vehicle firmly in the center of a tree trunk. Both Fabrizio and Mark blame each other for the accident, in which Mark is injured and requires medical care. Luckily, there’s a doctor in the house. Unluckily, no one is getting any cell reception whatsoever.

As the crew wanders in search of help, they find a creepy, isolated cabin in the woods. Of course they do. Uncovering more ominous signs like a sacrificial site complete with decapitated pig heads, taxidermy animals, and antique photographs of people wearing animal heads, it becomes increasingly clear that the group has stumbled upon a murder cult rivaling that of Lord Summerisle.

A figure wearing a grotesque mask with an oversized tongue holds up a jar. On either side of the figure are two people tied to wooden stakes.

Fabrizio, self-appointed nerd of the gang, explains the symbolism of the three brothers depicted: Osso, Mastrosso, and Carcagnosso. Legend has it these figures came from another world, promising starving people hope…but at the cost of sacrifice. In ritual sacrifice, victims would have their tongue, ears, and eyes cut before their deaths because, you know, the legend.

As everyone is getting properly freaked out, the 5 discover a young girl in a wooden structure, her tongue having been cut out. When they free the girl, one of the group is caught by several cult members and becomes the first to undergo the gruesome ritual. While the survivors attempt to escape, they merely find evidence that [in the voice of Six from Battlestar Galactica]: “All this has happened before. All this will happen again.”

Two young women and a girl lie on a wooden floor, bathed in the soft light of a lantern on the ground between them.

As the RV has disappeared, the group has little choice but to spend the night in the creepy cabin. While it seems they will have each other’s back as they stand guard, Elisa wakes in horror to discover several of the party in the beginning stages of the ritual sacrifice. Even more disturbing is the conspiracy that begins to unfold as Elisa connects the gory dots. Could it be that (gasp) not all is what it seems in the land of cult murder and taxidermy headwear?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Okay, there are a lot of gaps in logic here that you have to be comfortable with. This film opens up more questions than it’s willing to answer with its major twist, and this isn’t entirely rewarding. Like one of our leading characters, it has a certain smug satisfaction with the proceedings, which can be downright irksome.

Overall, though, I can’t deny that this is a lot of fun to watch. There are very clear references to Evil Dead, Midsommar, Wicker Man, and more than I can remember at this point. For the most part, the balance of comedy and gore works. I also very much enjoy the commentary on the cutthroat nature of the film industry; the events of the story occur largely because a failed director has powerful connections that allow him to live out his fantasy.

Some of it falls apart here, though, as there’s too much snide social commentary thrown in at the end. We’ve got your attention economy, corrupt government, mafia, and social media boxes all checked off. The messaging about abortion is confusing too; I wouldn’t say this is necessarily an anti-abortion film, but the tone is…odd. Elisa apparently doesn’t have a strong interest in the path her parents envision for her, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what exactly any of her interests are and how that relates to what she ultimately decides.

Credit where credit’s due: this film did more to promote an anti-bullying message than Melania ever did.

Would my blog wife chauffeur this one through the woods or cut off its ears without hesitation? Read her review to find out!

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Film Reviews

Willy’s Wonderland, or: Party Like It’s Your Birthday

I don’t remember the exact moment in cultural history when Chuck E. Cheese transformed from being the coveted location for all of the cool kids to host their big birthday celebrations to the stuff of anxiety-inducing nightmares. Possibly when I was no longer a child. And very likely when, upon reflection, so many socially accepted norms of the ’90s were revealed for the true horror they were.

Either way, this realization + the internet + the film career of Nicolas Cage can only yield one result: a movie where Nic Cage beats the shit out of a series of stand-ins for Chuck E. Cheese and his animatronic band. Don’t pretend you’re surprised.

The Film:

Willy’s Wonderland

The Premise:

After agreeing to clean an abandoned building in exchange for car repairs, an unnamed man realizes the animatronic characters stored inside aren’t as innocuous as they appear.

The Ramble:

Like Chuck E. Cheese, the once popular destination for children’s entertainment that was truly an exercise in the uncanny valley, Willy’s Wonderland has seen better days. The former hotspot for family friendly birthday fun and subpar pizza (I presume) now sits eerily empty, its once lively animatronic entertainers now merely stand in place, dead-eyed stares peering into the abyss.

Or at least that’s what the good folk of smalltown Hayesville would have you believe. When drifter Nicolas Cage (referred to only as the Janitor) is stranded after running over spikes set by the local sheriff, the owner of the defunct property offers a seemingly straightforward deal: serve as janitor for one night at Willy’s Wonderland in exchange for a repaired vehicle. Surely a quiet and only mildly unsettling evening of cleaning awaits.

A man in dark sunglasses faces a man in a cowboy hat outside of Willy's Wonderland, a rundown building that still features the business sign of a weasel waving in front of a rainbow.

However, teenage rebel Liv and her friends could tell you the much darker truth of the place: at night, the animatronics come to life, reanimated by the spirits of cannibalistic serial killers who founded Willy’s Wonderland with evil intent. The serial killers died in a Satanic suicide ritual, merging their spirits and thirst for blood with the animatronic bodies of Willy’s band. Liv and her friends are determined to burn down the cursed building but must save the unsuspecting janitor first.

A group of teenagers stands outside of the building for Willy's Wonderland, which features an illuminated sign with a weasel welcoming visitors.

As we know before the first well-choreographed and surprisingly tense fight between the Janitor and a human-sized animatronic puppet, the cleaner is not your everyday wanderer. I mean, he’s played by Nic Cage. The Janitor proves he’s more than capable of holding his own against the animatronic creatures, especially as he’s armed with a case of a Red Bull-like concoction known only as Punch. It’s not particularly clear why, but periodically the Janitor must recharge by chugging his beverage of choice and playing pinball.

In a dark room, a man looks up at a tall animatronic weasel that is in the spotlight.

When Liv and her friends arrive at Willy’s Wonderland to warn the Janitor, he ignores their advice. In fact, he says absolutely nothing, which is one of this film’s techniques (okay, gimmicks). As the Janitor learns more about the nature of Willy’s Wonderland and its relationship with the town, Liv’s friends become victims of the animatronic serial killers, and the sheriff finally intervenes. But is it to help end Willy’s reign of terror…or to pursue an ulterior motive?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Does this film feature close-ups of unsettlingly creepy animatronic characters in violent combat with Nicolas Cage, who frequently makes grunts of fury and pain but has no lines of spoken dialogue? Of course. Of course it does. And for that alone, this is an entertaining watch. I’m quite fond of the extended pinball playing/dance break scene featured as well.

However, the plot of this film and its logic doesn’t get much beyond a filmmaker deciding that they wanted to see Nicolas Cage fight Chuck E. Cheese. And to make that the entire point of this movie.

I find this film left me with more questions than answers primarily because no one could be bothered to think things through and come up with plausible explanations. At several points throughout the film, I was expecting some greater understanding of the Janitor and his fighting abilities. He is almost superpowered by the energy drink he constantly consumes…is there supposed to be something literally magical about it? Is it just for laughs? Is this some kind of lazy Popeye reference?

The core issue is that the logic of the small town basically appeasing Willy the animatronic serial killer is so implausible. I kind of follow the way he’s transformed into a vengeful god in the minds of the local residents, but I would have liked this to have been expanded further to make more sense. It feels like the shift from trying to destroy Willy’s Wonderland to offering human sacrifice on a regular basis is abrupt and a little extreme. The townspeople here kind of give the vibe of happily killing outsiders either way.

Unsurprisingly, the scenes with Nicolas Cage in extended fight sequences are so fun to watch. However, the poorly written local characters and teens get a lot of screen time that feels like a waste. Liv weirdly has almost no reaction to her friends being systematically murdered beyond looking a little upset. And there are quite a few moments where we are meant to believe there’s some kind of understanding or connection between Liv and the Janitor. I was expecting they’d have a real life connection and would have settled for even the predictable dude who left town years ago without knowing he had a daughter trope. But we never get any explanation for the connection between these characters, nor do we ever know much about them individually.

Also, this is a minor issue, but a massive building like Willy’s Wonderland having only one entrance/exit feels like a major fire code violation.

Would my blog wife join this one’s merry animatronic band of murderers or douse it thoroughly with gasoline? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Fear Street Part Three: 1666, or: No Goode Deed

*Spoilers follow*

Sometimes it just seems foretold in a Satanic ritual book that you’re going to enjoy a film. Here, we’ve got witches, Puritan period costume, and human sacrifices that happen to stand in for a strong social commentary. On paper, these are exactly the elements that make the Blog Collab tick. When they combine with dramatic neons and a well thought-out murder scheme, it’s pure heaven. Or hell, to follow the logic of a film in which good is evil.

The Film:

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

The Premise:

In the conclusion to the Fear Street trilogy, Deena learns the truth about Sarah Fier’s legacy and is determined to finally end the curse afflicting Shadyside residents, including her girlfriend Sam.

The Ramble:

At the conclusion of Part Two, Deena experienced a sort of time jump/vision/learning through osmosis about Sarah Fier’s life when she reunited the witch’s body with her cursed hand. As we learn through Deena/Sarah, Sarah Fier was a young colonist in the Puritan settlement of Union, lending us a very Crucible-esque spin on events.

A teen girl looks at a book, while another girl sits next to her, observing her.

Though a fairly good-natured young woman who has a talent for caring for and delivering livestock, Sarah has her share of doubters, from the perpetually intoxicated Thomas who claims to see darkness in her to the pastor’s wife…as Sarah is not so subtly in love with her daughter. Luckily, Sarah has allies in the form of her father and brother, as well as Solomon Goode, a loner from a well-to-do family who has recently moved to the outskirts of town to farm the land. Sarah also has friends with familiar faces played by actors from other installments, including a too-brief cameo from my personal favorite, Kate.

When Sarah and her friends sneak away from the 17th-century equivalent of a rave, they aim to acquire hallucinogenic berries from a widow who lives in the woods. While they do meet their goal, the teens are disturbed when the widow also utters an ominous warning and is in possession of a rather Satan-y looking book.

A group of people in Puritan clothing stand outside in the dark, their faces illuminated by a fire.

After returning to the party, Sarah and her secret girlfriend Hannah dodge the advances of town creep Caleb by sneaking back to the woods. There, a romantic moment is interrupted when it seems someone has caught the two. Rather than confront them, the mystery person opts for the repressed Puritan tactic of starting a nasty rumor that will eventually lead to a shunning. Or worse.

The following day, Hannah is horrified when her pastor father acts completely unlike himself…almost as if he’s possessed. Meanwhile, pests and mold sprout from every food source, the well water is corrupted with a dead goat’s body, and the sow who recently birthed piglets eats all of her young. While Sarah worries that she and Hannah have provoked God’s wrath with their sinful behavior, Solomon reassures her that they couldn’t have summoned the devil by mistake as she fears.

Three men with long hair in Puritan garb stand facing an enemy offscreen, prepared to act.

Things escalate quite dramatically soon after when the pastor locks himself in the church with his congregation…all of whom ultimately end up dead, including Sarah’s brother. This doesn’t really feel much like the inciting event so much as the moment all of the paranoid dudes of Puritanville, USA have been waiting for: a chance to have a literal witch hunt. It doesn’t take long for creepy Caleb to blame Hannah and Sarah, and for everyone to get onboard with this idea.

Managing to escape, Sarah vows to find a way to save herself and Hannah, even if it means making the deal with the devil they’ve supposedly already made. When this plan fails, Sarah turns to her pal Solomon for help…only to uncover an extremely dark secret that will set the stage for the Goodes’ future prominence and Sunnyvale’s success.

Armed with the knowledge that she must take down Sheriff Nick Goode in order to end the deal with the devil that Sarah Fier took the fall for, Deena unites with her brother Josh, Ziggy, and custodian Martin. But can they defeat the forces of evil with some divine inspiration from Carrie in–you guessed it–a very neon-lit mall?

The Rating:

4.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I had a lot of fun with this trilogy, particularly as the characters and history of the Shadyside/Sunnyvale divide were fleshed out. Having the context of previous films to create dramatic twists and a conspiracy that brings together many disparate elements in a cohesive way makes this final installment especially satisfying. I feel quite justified in my immediate suspicion of generically good-looking dudes in film who are extremely agreeable on the surface.

A continued criticism is that the films don’t always connect the different stories and characters well until the end. With Part Three, the film sometimes seems disconnected both from the other two and from the distinct halves. The choppiness does detract from the success of the trilogy, though it does allow for a pretty big reveal around the halfway mark of this film.

Possibly because I’m always a fan of a period drama, I did find the first half of this installment more satisfying than the conclusion. That being said, the final half is still a lot of fun to watch as the neons make the scenes vivid and disorienting, and it’s impossible not to root for our final characters to all make it through. And I think the plan Deena & co. develop is pretty inspired, especially considering they’re working under extreme pressure to evade multiple undead serial killers.

I would watch the fuck out of another trilogy like this, Netflix.

Would my blog wife put a curse on this one or embrace it like a long-lost severed hand? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Fear Street Part Two: 1978, or: Stayin’ Alive

As we make our way through the Fear Street trilogy, we’re only going back further in time and diving deeper into horror tropes and supernatural forces. Don’t worry, though–Part Two will deliver those vital horror elements: teens making questionable decisions, overly dramatic yet largely ignored warnings, and witches. Praise the Lord, so many witches.

The Film:

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

The Premise:

Following the events of Part One, teens in 1994 learn of a 1978 summer camp massacre that seems to have been the work of undead witch Sarah Fier.

The Ramble:

Following the events of Fear Street Part One, drugs are the official reason for the series of murders that decimated the population of Shadyside for approximately the 10,000th time in history. Keenly interested in the story is one C. Berman, previously revealed to be the survivor of a 1978 summer camp massacre. Desperate for a lead that will help possessed Sam, Deena and her brother Josh plead for C. Berman’s guidance…though, as her sad story reveals, there’s not much hope for those the witch Sarah Fier wants dead, including C. Berman’s own sister.

In 1978, Shadyside sisters Cindy and Ziggy couldn’t be more different. Cindy is an overachiever inclined to become extremely upset over stains on her shirts and the lack of enthusiasm for cleaning that burnouts Alice and Arnie express. Though once fun and free-spirited as one of Alice’s bffs, Cindy is pleased with her good girl reputation that can help her leave Shadyside behind forever.

Ziggy, a teen girl with long red hair, rolls her eyes as she walks away from her sister in a forested area.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ziggy, who is one strike away from being sent home from summer camp. After being caught stealing, mean girl Sheila takes it upon herself to make Ziggy pay, going so far as to string her up and burn her with a lighter. Camp counselors intervene, and future sheriff Nick Goode prevents Ziggy from getting sent home as his brother and future mayor Will would prefer. In all of this, there are no consequences for Sunnyvaler Sheila.

When Ziggy goes to see Nurse Lane for her burn, things get intense fast when Ziggy notices files about the witch in the nurse’s office. Nurse Lane discusses her daughter, who seemed to be a victim of the Shadyside curse when she murdered 7 people before killing herself. Cindy is dismissive of her sister’s concerns about the nurse…until Lane attempts to kill Cindy’s boyfriend Tommy soon after. With the ominous warning that Tommy will die that night, Nurse Lane is removed from the premises.

Teenager Ziggy talks to the camp nurse as she waits for her arm to be bandaged.

Now with an interest in following through on Ziggy’s concerns and finding a reasonable explanation for the disturbing happenings, Cindy tries to gather what information she can from her sister. However, it’s too little too late, and Cindy responds to Ziggy’s disdain with some harsh words that she’ll never end up regretting just a few hours later, of course. Ziggy has problems of her own as she contains to suffer harassment at the hands of Sheila and kindness from counselor Nick…who surprises her with some vengeful schemes up his sleeve.

As Cindy and Tommy investigate Nurse Lane’s dire warning further, they learn one of the tales around Sarah Fier’s life and undeath is her sacrifice of one hand in exchange for immortality. Theoretically, reuniting Sarah’s body with her skeletal hand may stop her at last…though no one has a clue where to find these remains. After prankster Alice runs off with Cindy’s purse, the team of Alice, Arnie, Cindy, and Tommy investigate a strange burial site that leads to an underground series of tunnels. It’s just around this time that Tommy begins to feel rather under the weather; (not so) coincidentally, he feels rather compelled to start swinging axes at skulls.

Cindy, a teen girl with dark hair, holds a flashlight to a book in a darkened room. Next to her, a teen boy and girl look over her shoulder.

After an encounter that unleashes a possessed Tommy on the unsuspecting campers, Cindy and Alice are stuck in the maze of tunnels in search of an escape route. Meanwhile, the campers are thoroughly engrossed in a Color War game of capture the flag–Shadyside vs. Sunnyvale, naturally. It’s really only the Shadyside kids who are in real danger, as the legend of Sarah Fier’s curse reveals that those from Sunnyvale aren’t targeted.

Teenager Ziggy looks into the eyes of teenager Nick as they sit side by side.

Much of the subsequent action unfolds as both Cindy/Alice and Ziggy/Nick try to track down the killer before more foreheads become closely acquainted with the business end of an axe. Even if Tommy is out of the picture (and, as he’s effectively a possessed corpse, that’s a big if), what of Sarah Fier herself and all of the ghouls under her power? And what does this all mean for our 1994 teens’ hope of freeing Sam from the witch’s grasp?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I had so much fun watching this installment, in part because of the clear interest in (respectfully) borrowing from other horror classics. Part Two continues to strike a good balance between disturbingly gory slasher and teen sleuthing adventure. Even though a lot of the characters are teen horror cliches, there is enough care taken with the backstory here that I’m invested in them anyway. Just as the relationship between Deena and Sam was the heart of Part One, the sister bond between Cindy and Ziggy is the driving force behind the story of Part Two.

I have to admit the “big twist” revealing who C. Berman was not that surprising to me…especially if you think of the personality alone of our leads. However, maybe this reveal is a genuine surprise to others?

As with the first installment, the aesthetic is gorgeous and the soundtrack is superb. Some of the ’70s hair is truly great, and there does seem to be more attention to creating a sense of time & place that was missing from Part One. However, I’m still not totally convinced about the setting as our characters are still rocking a mostly contemporary aesthetic and perspective IMHO.

Though our second installment does build upon the story established in Part One, I will say they don’t connect particularly effectively. There are times when this film almost feels like part of anthology series as we forget about the ’94 plotline completely except for the first and last 10 minutes or so. And, though we had several reminders about Nick Goode’s future as Sunnyvale sheriff, I totally forgot that his brother Will becomes the mayor. I could have used a few more character reminders for the non-sheriff characters, honestly.

Minor source of annoyance: despite what teen horror typically promises, we don’t actually get to see Sheila die a horrible death. As she’s a Sunnyvaler, this makes sense and is in line with the setup of the curse and all of the social commentary involved with it. But it’s still irritating as she was definitely the character I most wanted to see with an axe through her temple.

Overall, though, the trilogy has been a great deal of fun so far. My complaints with Part Two are relatively minor, and I can’t wait to dig in to Part Three, especially as we get the rare but excellent period drama horror setting.

Would my blog wife take an axe for this one or surprise it with a bucket full of cockroaches? Find out in her review!